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A debt-ceiling debacle with little silver lining for working-class America

Jonathan P Hicks | 8/3/2011, 2:52 p.m.

Congressman Emanuel Cleaver, a Democrat from Missouri, described it as a "Satan sandwich." Nancy Pelosi, the House Minority leader, agreed, adding that the sandwich came "with some Satan fries on the side."

They are referring, of course, to the agreement reached in Congress and signed by President Barack Obama to raise the nation's debt ceiling. It's a tragic piece of legislation that cuts trillions of dollars in spending and threatens to further erode services to the very Americans who need them the most. It shatters any hope, certainly in the near term, that there will be any meaningful initiative by the federal government to reduce the persistently high unemployment among America's workforce.

The agreement is widely described as a compromise between the Democrats and the Republicans, a fractious group who are themselves divided into two camps best described as the zealots and the lunatics. Despite the characterization of the agreement as a compromise, it's fairly difficult to find anything of importance to the ultra-right, Tea Party wing of the Republican Party that was ultimately left out of the legislation.

The deal provides for spending cuts of epic proportions but no new sources of revenue, most decidedly not from the wealthiest of Americans. What it does do is shift the role of government, at least in the coming years, from being an agent in helping troubled industries and financially troubled Americans, to function instead as a sledgehammer pounding sharp reductions in spending. Certainly, this will reduce the deficit, but it will have the flipside effect of cutting funds for everything from public safety to public schools.

This is the handiwork of a mean-spirited cadre of Tea Party fanatics who took advantage of the imminent deadline on the government's borrowing authority to run roughshod over Congress and, even more tragically, the president of the United States.

Once again, we were witnesses to the grim spectacle of Obama capitulating to the Republicans in a manner that left his party-and his core supporters-dispirited and deeply disappointed.

The president, while meeting with congressional delegations and working the phone behind the scenes with his staff, appeared far too restrained when it came to engaging in the public debate and setting the agenda on his own terms. He should have taken a far firmer stand with the Republicans. In fact, he should have used the most potent ammunition at his disposal: that he would take advantage of his constitutional authority to raise the debt ceiling by executive fiat if Congress failed to do so.

The problem for Obama is not only that he seems to have capitulated to virtually every Republican desire, but there is also the added misfortune that the debt ceiling deal accomplishes absolutely nothing to address the nation's major illness of the moment: continued high unemployment and a lack of new jobs. Mohamed El-Erian, the chief executive of the bond investment firm Pimco, made the case plainly when interviewed on the ABC News program "This Week." "Unemployment will be higher than it would have been otherwise," he stated.